THE HERO NEXT DOOR, our newest middle-grade anthology, debuted at ALAAC 2019 earlier this summer! Here are highlights from the panel moderated by anthology editor Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, featuring: Ellen Oh, Hena Khan, Ronald L. Smith, Linda Sue Park, and Lamar Giles. HERO is now available wherever books are sold!
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GBEMI: So it’s “The Hero Next Door.” How did that theme, that idea, come about?
ELLEN: Gbemi wrote a book called EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO. Which, if you haven’t read it, is one of my favorite books ever written. Seriously.
But that book was about a regular old kid who becomes a hero to his community, right? And I was like, “Hey! Those are the stories we need more of.” And that’s why I went to Gbemi and I said, “Gbemi, you know, I want an anthology that has stories like that, that have kids being heroes and just regular old normal people being the heroes of their stories.”
LAMAR: I grew up reading comic books, I wore my Spider-Man shirt today because I always thought of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. And so when I had a chance to write heroes for this anthology, I wanted my heroes to be the heroes that helped their community.
LINDA SUE: I just so intensely dislike this idea, especially — it’s not limited to boys and men, but it’s a particular problem there — where you have to do it yourself? You know, if you’re a “real man” you don’t ask for help.
In all of my stories, community — the people who are the hero — get help from the people around them! And I think that’s just so, so important. What a burden to tell — to have the message be, in story after story, “No, you have to do this yourself. No, this is —” You know, you’re a KID! And you have to do this yourself? No, it’s gotta be about community.
But our culture values individualism and innovation more than history and community. And that’s what I’d love to see shift.
RON: I gotta go after that?
You know, the traditional idea of a hero changes all the time, right? We’ve got superheroes, we’ve got people in communities, we’ve got people — probably here — we’ve got librarian superheroes, right?
Everyday heroes. So, I think people should just go out and do heroic things every day. Even small things; it doesn’t matter what they are. Everybody can be a hero.
HENA: In terms of the relationship with superheroes, and heroes in general, it’s complicated. Because I grew up playing Wonder Woman, because of Linda Carter, but I played with my neighbor and I got to be Steve. And I always wanted to be Wonder Woman but I accepted that I got to play Steve because I don’t think I thought I could be.
So it’s amazing to just even have a little brown girl who’s a Pakistani American Muslim like me in this anthology who gets to be a hero just for being herself and living her life.
GBEMI: So Ellen, last question. Why is WNDB in the business of publishing at all? Why does WNDB publish these anthologies?
ELLEN: These books are really important because I always think about, when we did the first anthology, turning to all our contributors and saying, “Write the story that you wish you had read when you were younger. Write the story that you wish could’ve given you that feeling of belonging, of representation” — that I know I never had as a youngster.
And that other kids can see us too. Recognize us as humans, as equals, you know, as heroes that we are part of the community — just like everyone else. I feel like these books are part of that answer, of teaching kids empathy, of teaching them that we are all the same inside, and that we should have a chance to be our own heroes. That they should recognize that. You know? All of us.
GBEMI: Thank all of you, all of you wrote such beautiful and powerful stories. You made my job super, super easy. Thank you all for being here and joining us today.
And thank you so much, Ellen, for your work as CEO and founder of WNDB, for just joining [applause] this long hard fight towards freedom and justice and helping us imagine the world the way it should be.
Filmed and edited by JoAnn Yao.
Music: “Nightingale” by Eveningland
WNDB Video Preview Graphic: Phyllis Sa & JoAnn Yao